Did God Really Command Genocide?: The Case of Amalek

Did God Really Command Genocide?: The Case of Amalek October 3, 2018

Continuing the series that I began a few weeks ago, this post will once again be about how to read and interpret a controversial Biblical passage. However, in contrast to my previous posts, which explored how traditional Jewish commentaries respond to tough texts, this time, I’ll be exploring an argument made by Christian Biblical scholars. I’m doing that because

A. I like their argument

and

B. I haven’t found Jewish sources on this topic to be as helpful.

Getting to the heart of the matter, today I want to talk about the Old Testament commandment, issued by God, for the Israelites to utterly destroy the entire Amalekite nation. Here’s the text:

“Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

(Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Granted, the Alamekites seem like pretty horrible people in this passage. But the command to “blot” them out also seems overly harsh. In the Book of Samuel, God commands King Saul to carry out this command of destruction, and is very explicit about its brutality:

“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

(I Samuel 15:3)

If we are being honest about the text here, this commandment sounds like genocide. How could a good, just God command something like this?

Well, what if He didn’t? In the book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, by Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan, they explain and defend this position.

These scholars try to answer the question: Did Saul literally kill every single Amalekite, or was the divine command simply hyperbolic, merely referring to a decisive, total military victory? By analogy, in sports, “totally destroying” the other team can just mean that you beat them by a lot.

But why should we assume this genocidal command isn’t and wasn’t meant to be taken literally? Well for one thing, we find the nation of Amalek mentioned again and again in the Bible even after Saul allegedly wiped them all out. Even in the very same book of Samuel, in chapters 27 (verse 8) and 30, we find that King David fights the Amalekites, who supposedly all died 12 chapters ago!

Here’s what Copan and Flanagan have to say about this startling inconsistency:

This text affirms not only that the Amalekites still existed, but the reference to Egypt and Shur states that they existed in the very same area where Saul ‘utterly destroyed’ every single one of them (15: 8, 20). What’s more, David took sheep and cattle as plunder. Clearly, in terms of what the narrative says, the Amalekites were not all destroyed— nor were all the animals finally destroyed in Gilgal in chapter 15. Instead, many people and livestock from the region had survived Saul’s attack.“

This is the first critical point: The Bible itself mentions Amalekites roaming around even after the command and implementation of the supposed genocide. This fact alone lends credence to the idea that the command to Saul to destroy “all” the Amalekites was hyperbolic, rather than literal.

Next, here’s the historical evidence that Copan and Flanagan provide to read the text this way. Essentially, they show that Ancient Near Eastern texts written around the same time as our biblical one often use exaggerated “warfare rhetoric” that are obviously non literal and just meant to signify total destruction.

The Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff makes the point very well:

“Anyone who reads the book of Joshua in one sitting cannot fail to be struck by the prominent employment of formulaic phrasings…. Far more important is the formulaic clause, “struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword.”
The first time one reads that Joshua struck down all the inhabitants of a city with the edge of the sword, namely, in the story of the conquest of Jericho (6:21), one makes nothing of it. But the phrasing—or close variants thereon—gets re­peated, seven times in close succession in chapter 10, two more times in chapter 11, and several times in other chapters. The repetition makes it unmistakable that we are dealing here with a formulaic literary convention.

Thus, the violence being described in Joshua and Samuel is stylized, formulaic, and is intentionally exaggerated because the point of the story is not simply to tell over what literally happened. Ancient readers would have been totally comfortable reading the text this way. The noted Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen provides a number of examples of Ancient Near Eastern hyperbolic rhetoric about victories in war:

The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear…. In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni, was over­thrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent” —whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always”—a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on, ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.”

To conclude, based on both

1. internal inconsistencies in the biblical text itself about nations being “annihilated” but then suddenly reappearing and

2.  comparisons to other contemporaneous Ancient Near East texts about war, which employ what’s called “warfare rhetoric” to exaggerate the scale of victories,

there’s a decent argument to be made that the Biblical commands and descriptions of mass violence, total war, and genocide are not describing something that actually happened or was commanded. Rather, these were commonly used hyperbolic ways of saying that a decisive victory occurred or that an enemy was defeated.

I hope I presented this argument clearly, and maybe provided some comfort to those of you who have been bothered by this question of alleged genocide in the Old Testament. Share your thoughts and criticisms in the comments; there is a lot more to say here and I’d love to read some other perspectives on the topic. Thanks for reading!

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  • Christine

    Even if those passages are not meant to be taken literally as commanding genocide, there’s still the question of how are we supposed to deal with our enemies, or even, how do we know who our ‘enemies’ even are?

    When I read the passage from Deuteronomy, I focus on the last part – blot out their name, do not forget.

    I think this is God making clear that the ways of these people are really bad (they attacked the weakest among the Israelites, easy targets!). This behavior is the antithesis of what God wants us to do and I think passages like these are saying that we should not follow their example.

  • Michael Weiner

    Great question about how to deal with enemies. Your interpretation of the verses in Deuteronomy reminds me of what the noted 19th century rabbi, Sampson Raphael Hirsch, wrote on this passage:

    “It is not Amalek who is so pernicious for the moral future of mankind but זכר עמלק, the glorifying of the memory of Amalek which is the danger. As long as the annals of humanity cover the memory of the heroes of the sword with glory, as long as those that throttle and murder the happiness of mankind are not buried in oblivion, so long will each successive generation look ip in worship to these “great ones” of violence and force, and their memory will awaken the desire to emulate these heroes, and acquire equal glory with equal violence and force.”

  • Christine

    A very wise man, was Rabbi Hirsch!

  • Mark Lis

    I heard from a Rabbi Liebtag in Israel that the command is literally to destroy the nation, but not the individuals. Meaning to wipe out any sense of national identity with the Amalkites who were violent people who took advantage of weaker nations. No one should exist and still identify with them. A good analogy would be the Nazis, they weren’t loterlite all killed, but the Nazi nation ceased to exist and there are no Nazi women or Children or Men left. (Ignoring a few crazies who can’t hoenstly be confused with the nazi National)
    The idea being that it is the national responsibility of the Jewish people to prevent bad actors from creating a society based on cruelty and we must fight against such societies.

  • Barros Serrano

    Yes this sort of hyperbole was common in ancient times. I recall Rameses II returning from what was essentially a tie with the Hittites, claiming he’d obliterated them, and furthermore had done so nearly singlehandedly, so might a warrior was he.

    I’m reminded also of the (admittedly fabricated for Hollywood but still informative) speech of “William Wallace” (Mel Gibson) to his troops, “Oh right, I can’t be William Wallace. William Wallace is ten feet tall and shoots lightning bolts out his arse!”

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for the Ramses II reference!

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for sharing that very interesting interpretation. “Blotting out” the זכר of the nation definitely implies what you say—national identity as opposed to all individuals.

  • Christine

    This might not be the perfect place for this post, but I am about half-way through James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword.” This is, in my opinion, a painful but necessary read for all Christians. I’m only up to the Inquisition and I know the worst is still to come. Carroll reminds us how, repeatedly throughout the centuries, the Jesus story has been carefully edited/translated into a narrative, and symbolism has been adopted, to support political ambitions. Even the Nicene Creed has been subtly evolved over time.

    I thought it was a really odd coincidence that last night I read, on page 303, that (as a result of the 4th Lateran Council in 1215): “Society discovered the efficiency with which it could organize itself around the project of attacking an enemy,” and then this morning, I saw Fox News quoting a U.S. congressman comparing the Kavanaugh hearings to Christ’s crucifixion.

    So I would supplement your statement by saying that it is the international responsibility of all people to prevent bad actors from exploiting religious traditions to create a society that lacks respect for basic human dignity.

    And it’s incumbent on Christians, especially, to do the work to try to discern history from liturgy.

  • Christine

    I’m curious about the meaning of “blot out” because it seems to be used in very different contexts in other parts of the Bible. In some places, it seems to be a reference to whether a person’s name is included in the book of life. And in the Noah story:

    23And it [the Flood] blotted out all beings that were upon the face of the earth, from man to animal to creeping thing and to the fowl of the heavens, and they were blotted out from the earth, and only Noah and those with him in the ark survived.

    Granted, saying that only Noah and those with him survived seems to clearly indicate that all others perished!

    But one possible alternate interpretation based on the meaning in English is that these people/things were (and should remain) removed from our sight or memory (but not necessarily put to death or physically removed from the earth)…